ONE VIEWS WITH MIXED FEELINGS the #Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement which began sometime in 2015 (and which is still continuing) for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford, his alma mater.
CECIL RHODES (1853-1902) WAS A MINING MAGNATE and politician who founded the South African country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). He was also one of the key founders of De Beers, a world leader in diamond trading. There is no doubt at all that Rhodes tried to perpetuate British imperialism and the gains made from the unremitting plunder of South Africa’s natural resources were partly used to fund the Rhodes scholarship which commenced in 1903 in terms of his will. The Rhodes Scholarship is the world’s first international study program and it continues till date. Rhodes scholars are chosen by a rigorous selection process and 89 persons are chosen from all over the world every year. Rhodes scholars from India include Lovraj Kumar, Girish Karnad, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Prabat Patnaik, Deepak Nayyar, Mahesh Rangarajan, Boria Majumdar and Argya Sengupta. (The list is not exhaustive). Tony Abbot, the former Australian premier and the current Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong are Rhodes scholars.
UNLESS I HAVE MISSED IT, NONE OF the eminent Indian Rhodes scholars appeared to have come out in the open in support of the RMF movement although, today, those demanding the removal of Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College are the young Rhodes scholars themselves. As a matter of fact, memorials to Rhodes have been opposed since the 1950s beginning with the removal of Rhodes’s statue at the University of Cape Town. In the Oxford Union debate, there were 245 affirmative votes for the removal of the statue against 212 negative votes. People like Tony Abbot and Noam Chomsky have actively supported the #RMF campaign. What is puzzling however is that even if the Rhodes’ statue is removed, it will not signal the end of “institutional rascism” present in British institutions of higher learning which is actually the main target of the #RMF movement. So why go through the pains of removing the statue ? If anything, the statue serves a kind of ironic reminder that even though Rhodes was a “white supremacist” and possibly the first well known practitioner of “apartheid”, he gave the world one of its best scholarships. Further, if one were to publicly disgrace the celebrated rascists of the past, the campaign should not stop at Rhodes alone. The list may well include persons like Sir Winston Churchill – this was the point made by the key speaker, Nigel Bigger, Professor of moral and pastoral theology at Christ’s Church, against the resolution moved at the Oxford Union debate. His key point was that ” If we insist on our heroes being pure, then we aren’t going to have any.” On the other hand, his successful challenger in the debate, Ntokozo Qwabe argued : ” I will not hold that I’m a hypocrite for taking money that was stolen from my people. This idea that money can buy our silence is exactly what the problem is….”
THE RMF ACTIVISTS ARGUE THAT their main grouse is against “institutionalized rascism at the higher portals of learning.” (Only 24 black students were accepted last year at Oxford undergraduate courses). The fight against rascism cannot merely be symbolic – it has to be a sustained, long drawn out campaign. The removal of Rhodes’ statue away from his alma mater will not take the movement far. Other forms of protest must be devised before long coupled with a sustained campaign for affirmative action.
WHILE THINKING ABOUT RHODES, in the present context, I could not help thinking about Michael Milken, the world’s most famous junk bond trader who was convicted for racketeering and securities fraud in 1989. Milken later donated millions of dollars to the Prostate Cancer Foundation and for combating melanoma. If the millions donated by Milken for medical research were refused on the ground that it was “tainted money”, significant progress towards the cure of prostate cancer would not have been achieved so early. The criminal record of Milken or for that matter the less than salutary past of Rhodes will not diminish the force of their philanthropy. It would be difficult to live in a world of absolutes always. Besides, in the truest sense, when the world partakes the generosity of persons like Milken and Rhodes, it is not at all condoning their questionable past but rather acknowledging that for the bad deeds done, the individuals in question have, after all, made some amends.
SO, LET THE STATUE OF RHODES stay where it is. It will not diminish the essence of what the Rhodes scholars are fighting for.